Lionesses Make History: First English Team to Reach Women’s World Cup Final
Whatever happens in Sunday’s pivotal match against Spain in Sydney, the Lionesses will become the first senior England football team to play in a World Cup final since 1966, and the first to do it on foreign soil.
That is an incredible accomplishment at this most memorable of tournaments. However, the effect of this side goes far beyond the record books.
With its blend of talent, energy, and humility, this squad continues to attract new fans, perplex sceptics, overturn perceptions, and inspire millions.
When set against the cruel injuries that ruled out key players like captain Leah Williamson, Euro 2022 Player of the Tournament Beth Mead, and playmaker Fran Kirby, as well as their slow start to the World Cup and the disruption caused by top scorer Lauren James’ suspension, England’s campaign appears even more remarkable.
Their march to European triumph last year was fueled by home advantage. This time, they were thousands of miles away, and in the semi-final, they found themselves in the most terrifying of circumstances, facing off against inspired co-hosts Australia, bolstered by the will of an entire nation, in their national stadium.
But, as is customary for this team, despite the odds, England prevailed.
And if they can add the sport’s biggest prize to their European crown here at the biggest and most competitive World Cup to date, it will cement them as not only one of Britain’s greatest teams in any sport, but as the dominant force in the international women’s game – an incredible feat given the much smaller player pool compared to rivals like the United States.
England’s success may be attributed primarily to a golden generation of players. The manner in which they have triumphed graciously, consoling opponents, has reinforced the idea that these are role models of which the country can be truly proud.
It adds to their coach Sarina Wiegman’s already illustrious reputation, who has brought the team to the next level since her arrival in 2021, following the disappointment of semi-final exits in the previous two World Cups.
And it is the most recent example of the impact of investment in the women’s game over the last decade, including the FA’s establishment of St George’s Park as a national team training facility in 2012, talent identification programmes that discovered and then developed these stars, and the professionalisation of the Women’s Super League.
For many, the final will mark the end of a lengthy journey that the sport has been on in England since the FA’s 49-year ban on women playing on league grounds was abolished in 1970.
The Lionesses have already done a lot for the game and for women’s rights in general. Their Euros victory on home soil last year gave the sport a major boost in terms of participation and prominence, with the number of registered players and WSL attendances and viewing figures both skyrocketing as a result. The squad successfully advocated for girls’ equal access to school sports in England, and the government subsequently committed £600 million in financing.
Despite all of the progress that England reaching the final means, many people believe that there is still a long way to go. The Lionesses have highlighted aspects of this through their advocacy: before the competition, Mary Earps stated it was “hurtful” that supporters couldn’t buy a copy of her custodian shirt.
In a separate issue, it emerged that the players were dissatisfied with the FA’s attitude on performance-related bonuses – a conflict that has yet to be settled – as part of a broader dissatisfaction with the governing body’s commercial strategy. The squad stated in a statement that their fight was motivated by “a strong sense of responsibility to grow the game.”
In other respects, the Lionesses have unintentionally sparked debate. While the FA has attempted to downplay the absence of its president, Prince William, and Prime Minister Rishi Sunak from Sunday’s final, there is now a controversy.
There is also concern about Wiegman’s compensation, which is roughly one-tenth of that of men’s team manager Gareth Southgate. The FA has stated that she will be considered for his position in the future, sparking debate about the sport’s dearth of female representation off the pitch.
Only 12 of the 32 nations competing in this World Cup had a female head coach. While prize money in Australia and New Zealand has increased since the last competition, it is still barely a fraction of what is available to men’s World Cup players. Fifa president Gianni Infantino’s remark that women must “pick the right battles” to “convince us men what we have to do,” as if they were accountable for action on equality, has also sparked debate.
Domestically, former England international Karen Carney’s analysis of women’s football recently showed how women and girls continue to be much less active than men and boys, with gender preconceptions and facilities still preventing females from participating. Carney emphasised the need of minimum standards in the professional game, calling for increased investment, immediate action to address a lack of diversity, a new dedicated broadcast slot, and the professionalisation of the second tier Championship, among other ideas.
As London 2012 and previous historic British athletic events have demonstrated, motivation can only go so far. Other vital factors for a lasting and real legacy are opportunities and investment.
England’s men’s rugby union team famously defeated the hosts to win their lone World Cup twenty years ago, at the identical stadium where the Lionesses will walk out on Sunday. It was one of the most memorable events in English sport, witnessed by millions of people at home and transforming the players involved into legends. However, it did not have the same impact on sport and society as a Lionesses victory.
Many will now be expecting that if England can become world champions, producing larger crowds, new players, more respect, and new sponsors, the momentum needed to address the lingering difficulties now confronting the game will increase. And that this team can be even more transformative and wonderful for future generations of Lionesses than it already is.